News of the day: Elon Musk has a new toy. This will change Twitter for better or worse, depending on who you talk to and depending on what you think is better or worse for social media and its effect on what we think and how we live. Lots of bright people are trying to understand what is going wrong with societies all over the world. There’s a broad consensus that, somehow, social media is part of the problem, along with smart phones, political polarization, and economic globalization. Maybe it’s likes/dislikes that are making social media so potentially harmful. Maybe it’s bots that seem now to outnumber us real people. I’m told AI writing algorithms are getting so good that soon you won’t be able to distinguish between AI bots, sock puppets, mere trolls, and us genuine humans. One surprising new development of the Ukraine War: social media and disinformation is playing a greater role than ever before. Authoritarian regimes in the suddenly-so-relevant 1930s exploited radio as the preferred internal propaganda medium. Now it’s social media, useful both internally and externally. Remember the Monty Python skit about the joke that was so funny it killed? We now have viral social media posts and campaigns that can mobilize the masses, target individuals or groups, incite violence, and yes kill people.
Here’s the first question for this post: How deep is your involvement with social media, and how does it affect your view of the world, your view of the Church, your beliefs, and your sense of self or identity? I was an early adopter of blogs, a late adopter of Facebook, and a non-adopter of Twitter. Shows what I know. When I first saw Twitter, I thought it was a joke. Now it’s worth $44 billion.
Some people use social media to get news of the world, meaning they get a filtered, echo-chamber stream of news. Not good. Other people use it to stay in touch with family and friends and their local network (colleagues at work, neighbors, ward members). Me, I use Facebook primarily to interact with a variety of Mormon groups. I don’t use Facebook “socially,” and I don’t use Twitter at all. So I’m pretty shallow in terms of social media involvement. Even so, I spend too much time scrolling down Facebook. I can’t quite imagine how it works for people who get most of their information and conversation about everything filtered through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the others.
The latest book I’m reading to try and understand this whole mess — the whole disinformation revolution, highlighted by Trump and his Big Lie, Covid misinformation, and Putin’s election meddling and warmongering — is This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (PublicAffairs, 2020) by Peter Pomerantsev, a well-traveled scholar and journalist. The experience you and I have of social media is largely the personal side: we interact with real people and read some posts from news and media outfits. But the book makes clear there is a dark institutional and governmental side to social media, with thousands of young posters employed at click farms or bot farms (rows of cubicles in offices not much different from yours) to push this or that product, meme, candidate, phony news story, or government lie. We in the West have a belief that free speech and an open marketplace of ideas will produce positive social outcomes and that, in the large social forum where speech and media operate, true reports and valid arguments will over time triumph over false reports, bad arguments, and propaganda. That belief is looking increasingly naive. Let’s put it in simple terms: Free speech doesn’t seem to be working anymore.
Here’s a quote from the Pomerantsev book talking about the suddenly magnified role of disinformation in international and even military conflict. Keep in mind he’s writing about the Ukraine of 2020, when there was armed conflict in the Donbas region, but before the full-scale war of 2022 launched by Putin. Things have certainly intensified this year.
War used to be about capturing territory and planting flags, but something different was at play out here [in Ukraine]. Moscow needed to create a narrative about how pro-democracy revolutions like the Maidan [the successful pro-democracy movement in Ukraine in 2013-14] lead to chaos and civil war. Kiev needed to show that separatism leads to misery. What actually happened on the ground was almost irrelevant — the two governments just needed enough footage to back their respective stories. Propaganda has always accompanied war, usually as a handmaiden to the actual fighting. But the information age means that this equation has been flipped: military operations are now handmaidens to the more important information effect. It would be like a vastly scripted reality TV show if it weren’t for the very real deaths.This Is Not Propaganda, p. 106-7.
It’s not just war in which the “information effect” now outshines the substance of events. Domestic politics, too. Governors in Florida (latest: attacking Disney World) and Texas (latest: sending busloads of immigrants to Washington, DC) are more interested in generating plentiful media coverage for orchestrated political stunts than in actually governing their respective states. You could say the same thing for the pathetic election audits pushed and sometimes executed in various states following the 2020 election. They weren’t audits, they were political stunts. This all seems more like scripted reality TV than like reality. Pomerantsev is right. Powered by social media and even traditional mainstream media, the script is displacing reality if the script is pushed hard enough and effectively.
Now the LDS Church was late to websites and the Internet. The Church was late to social media. Is it late to the disinformation game? And is that good or bad? Governments, particularly authoritarian ones, are very involved and are getting very good at the disinformation game. Corporations and companies are getting very involved in the disinformation game to push their products and services. Here’s the second question, which seems quite relevant: Is the LDS Church involved in the disinformation game? And is that a good thing or a bad thing? That is, do they employ persons or use missionaries to roam the Internet and social media, leaving favorable comments and pushing ideas and opinions favorable to LDS views? Or use bots to accomplish the same thing? I’m thinking a step or two beyond just generating good PR by issuing positive press releases about the LDS welfare program or a Helping Hands operation. I’m thinking about a roomful of cubicles with LDS employees or missionaries making posts and leaving comments, possibly using their own names or identities or possibly using made-up names and identities. My gut sense is that if LDS leadership thought it was a good idea to start and continue to run the Strengthening Church Members Committee and thought it was a good idea to keep knowledge of the Hundred Billion Dollar Fund secret from the general membership and from almost all LDS leaders, the leadership likely thinks playing the disinformation game is a good idea.
On the one hand, the evolution of social media and the emergence of widespread (ubiquitous?) disinformation games highlight how outdated and ineffective is the traditional LDS missionary approach of knocking on doors are standing on street corners trying to strike up conversations with passers-by. One might say that if the Church is putting money and resources into a covert effort to play the disinformation game, that’s just doing what has to be done in 2022 to get the message out and build the brand. On the other hand, that seems like the wrong approach for a church to take, any church, not just the LDS Church. Missionary work should just be sharing the good news through traditional channels, and truth will prevail. The good sheep will hear the voice of the (Mormon) Shepherd. But that sounds a lot like what I called the suddenly naive belief (referred to earlier) that truth and good opinions will prevail in the free speech social marketplace of conversation and ideas of 2022. That’s just not quite how it works anymore.
A final observation. I am 100% confident that the permabloggers here at W&T are real humans. I am 99% confident that almost all of the comments that get posted at W&T are from real humans, not AI bots and not sock puppets acting on behalf of an institution or government — but that’s because we have a good spam filter. We get dozens, even hundreds, of comments a day that are part of the broad disinformation game but that never get posted to the public W&T site. Take a look at your email spam folder. Same thing. But social media doesn’t have a spam filter. In fact, it might be just the opposite. If you like conspiracy theories and questionable news posts, algorithms will know it and will fill your feed with other conspiracy theories and more questionable news stories. Note to Elon Musk: Twitter needs a spam filter. Social media needs a spam filter. Imagine what blog comments and your email inbox would look like without a good spam filter. Note to Carl Sagan: We need your baloney detection kit, now more than ever.
So you, reader, have two questions and an observation to chew on, bolded in the above discussion. But I’m hoping most of the discussion is directed to the last question: Is the LDS Church involved in the disinformation game? And should it be? Is it a good thing or a bad thing for a church to play the same disinformation game that so many actors in the public square are now playing?
In a world where you expect that there are actors playing the disinformation game in a way that you disagree with, it can become easy to justify joining in the game in an effort to “cancel them out”. I would not be particularly surprised to find that there are anti-LDS bots leaving half-true comments on facebook, twitter, reddit, W&T and many other platforms. And if I were working in the COB, I could imagine the impulse to not stand idly by, but to get some missionaries to start generating more comments and content to balance that out. I would also be able to tell myself that I was only asking everyone to tell the truth, I was just paying them (or not) to tell it in all the places that I wanted it to be heard. Does that count as disinformation? It seems to me that disinformation is largely what the other side does, whereas what I’m doing is just getting the truth out.
The LDS Church is indeed involved in the information game. Whether or not you consider that “disinformation” is up to you. There’s the LDS Newsroom, the Church’s web site, General Conference, and other associated avenues via social media. Not sure I view most of these any differently than I view the PR and messaging efforts of other large organizations and corporations. The COJCOLDS has a team of folks who seem to do a decent job.
But I feel the need to make a specific comment about the Gospel Topics Essays (GTEs). These are pretty old news at this point, having been released initially in 2013. We’ve heard that the Church has invested significantly in SEO (search engine optimization) and the idea was that for folks who were researching information about the Church, the GTEs would be a safe landing place to find satisfactory explanations about controversial topics. But at the same time, the Brethren didn’t seem to want to disseminate the GTEs to the general membership — which is why you’ll still find LDS bishops and stake presidents who haven’t even heard of them.
One of my main questions is whether the GTEs are a net positive or a net negative for the Church. There’s no way to prove this one way or another. But my guess is that the net effect is neutral: for every non-member investigator and curious member who were satisfied (and inoculated) with the content of the essays, there’s probably a member (like me) or non-member who feel that the essays are incomplete at best and more likely misleading.
I know some of you read the GTEs and for you they were no big deal one way or another. But for me, they were the launching pad for my exit from the Church. I researched the foot notes and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I went to external sources for verification and down the rabbit hole I went. And then it occurred to me why the Brethren are so dead set on “correlation” and “teaching from the manual”. There’s a reason they want us to regurgitate GC talks in all our lessons: they don’t really want us (on the inside) to dig any deeper into doctrine or history. The reason: they don’t want more inquiring minds to question.
I’m quite involved in FB, but nothing else with social media. I spend quite a lot of time on it. I enjoy seeing the joy in the lives of others, even if they’re only showing the best part. Just as much or more so, I’ve also enjoyed some of the political, scientific, philosophical, and religious discussion I’ve had on it. Yes, you can lose a lot of meaning without face to face contact, but you can also form more complete thoughts when you take the time to write them. Social media is ultimately just a tool, and whether its effects are positive or negative largely depend on how you choose to use it.
I agree disinformation is a problem, but I think the fact that society has become overly trigger happy to label something as disinformation is also a huge problem. Does a scientific study suddenly become unreliable because someone posts it on social media (Granted, context is important. And for that matter one can ask if a scientific study still remains “true” if four other studies seeking to verify the study fail to get the same results)? “Don’t believe everything you read on FB” is one of the greatest pieces of advice anyone can take. However, with few exceptions, the majority of people spouting this advice—people I generally care quite a lot about– often haven’t convinced me they’ve put in the same amount of thought in for every subject we’re talking about. They’ve only convinced me that they feel I haven’t.
Additionally, regarding government and large corporations, if it comes between free flowing information with both truth and falsehoods, or a concerted effort by one or more parties to limit information to “truth” only, even with the most benevolent intentions, I generally prefer the former.
I do think the Church is largely involved in information. It wouldn’t even surprise me if one or two members of the Seventy are even assigned to read blogs such as this. How they respond to that, I think, is different than many people might think, if at all.
. . . and for the record, despite my frequent defense of the Church, I am not a paid or called representative on its behalf.
Eli, I always thought you were getting a discount on your tithing for reading and posting on W&T!
Gosh. I would be very surprised to find that there are anti-LDS bots leaving half-true comments on facebook, twitter, reddit, W&T or any other platform. If anyone here happens to spot one in the wild, pls pause scrolling long enough to save the link to the suspicious content and feel welcome to share. Otherwise, gonna file that claim in the same folder with My old girlfriend from Oklahoma was gonna fly out for the dance but she couldn’t cause she’s doing some modeling right now.
All I know is that since I started commenting with some regularity on W&T and BCC, I haven’t been asked to give a talk in church. Makes you wonder.
LOL Bishop Bill, I’d be lying if I said such an off wouldn’t at all be at least a little tempting.
Of course the church is involved in disinformation, even if I don’t like to use that word with a church that I still love, even though I am trying to escape from an abusive relationship with it. The church has been telling only the good history, only the faith affirming stories, only what it wants member to know since the beginning. Joseph Smith did it when he didn’t announce that he was married to multiple women. Sure, the method was different then, but lying for the Lord was still not telling the whole truth and trying to mislead people. Today it encourages members to post of social media about conference and post their testimonies on social media, so it is actively encouraging members to post its propaganda. It has missionaries manning a phone bank to answer question, and they are not supposed to answer the hard questions with the full truth. If a caller asks why the church didn’t give blacks the priesthood until 1978, those missionaries are supposed to say that we don’t know why God wanted it that way, not that it was because Brigham Young was a racist. The church has bots that search for what is being said, even if I don’t know if they have bots that post things also. They have live missionaries and members doing that, so maybe they don’t needs bots. If monitoring what is being said about you and attempts at controlling what gets talked about are all part of this disinformation you are talking about, then yes, the church engages in disinformation on social media. If telling only part of the story is disinformation, then yes the church has been engaging in disinformation since it’s beginning.
I’m just finishing a book called How Civil Wars Start by Barbara Walter. It is a great read, and one of the points she makes is that social media has become a catalyst for civil wars all over the world, due the quick and unstoppable spread of misinformation. Social media has literally provided the tipping point in many recent civil wars.
I think we do not fully understand the power and impact that social media is having–and will have in the future–on our world. Likewise, one day far in the future we will know how it will impact faith, the way it will effect people’s views on church membership, and the way it changes how church members relate to each other. I’m not sure whether I am optimistic or terrified!
I heard an interview with some now post-Mormon TikTokers. They are husband and wife. Their videos answer questions about the church from their followers. They didn’t consider themselves anti-Mormon at all but didn’t present an orthodox narrative. For example, they were asked about temple clothing. They used images the church had posted on its own website and drew on its explanatory language. They were frank but said nothing disrespectful or inflammatory.
Their bishop came to visit with a file. He had never watched any of their videos. He had screenshots of the temple clothing from the videos. After their discussion, the bishop was kind of on their side. But he said that he had been given the file by the SP (wouldn’t reveal where the SP got it) and that he was instructed to tell them they could choose to resign or they would be excommunicated. No membership council – just quit or we’ll excommunicate you.
So yes, the SCMC is monitoring. Radio Free Mormon has been told by someone working inside the SCMC apparatus that he is being monitored.
Professionally, LinkedIn and Twitter provide massive amounts of industry news and actionable intelligence about prospects, clients, and competitors. Carefully building those networks over the years has generated a small fortune for my company.
I have too many professional “friends” on Facebook to use it for my personal agenda, so I self censor there. I participate in several local closed groups that have provided me with a sense of community and some new real-life friends.
Wheat and Tares is a joy to my soul – even when it isn’t. It really feels like home. I appreciate how there can be healthy debate and disagreement without the nasty trolling you see most everywhere else. I thank you all.
What Anna said.
My view of the information/disinformation campaigns is that they create separate realities for different groups of people, which shuts of actual communication between them. Sometimes you can tell when someone has a very narrow view of reality and can’t consider any other views. As members of the church, I feel like we fall into this camp a lot. If the church were to amp up their information/disinformation campaign, they might gain or solidify some followers, but it would increase/highlight the gap between the church’s reality and the rest of the world’s reality. I think it would turn people off and make them less likely to want to engage in a discussion about the church.
P.S. -One personal opinion: I really dislike it when my family and friends post church quotes over and over on their social media platforms. I can’t say why it bugs me, it just does.
P.S.S. One personal story. We’re planning a trip to the US from overseas this summer to visit family who has largely bought into the disinformation campaign on Covid. They know we have different views than them, so they were trying to re-assure us by saying. “Good news. You don’t have to take covid tests here. So it doesn’t matter if you get Covid in the states when you come.” I responded by saying, “Actually we do have to take a Covid test, (and test negative) in order to get on the plane to fly back to the country we live in. So it does matter for us if we get Covid. It would have the real consequence of us being stuck in the US and not being able to return home.” The response I got was “You’re such a drama queen!” In their reality, they either can’t or won’t acknowledge that Covid would have a real consequence for us and that we should take precautions to avoid getting it. – I share this as example of how “the free speech” of disinformation can really block communication between individuals, and that I think the church should not contribute to this phenomenon.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
Here’s a recent story at The Atlantic that shows how effective the Russian internal disinformation campaign is, and how that disinformation, full of lies. lays the ground for the callous killing of so many Ukrainian civilians. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/06/ukraine-mass-murder-hate-speech-soviet/629629/
josh h, I agree that the Gospel Topics Essays were an attempt to put more factually accurate history (and discussion of doctrinal issues) out there for the benefit of local leaders (who needed some sort of resource to respond to members with questions) and of questioning members themselves. It didn’t work terribly well. I think the LDS leadership sees the Essays as a failed project, which means a retreat from “more factually accurate history” into (at best) storytelling and (at worst) misleading or inaccurate history.
Faith Over Fear, yes it seems political disinformation campaigns don’t have to tell a coherent or factual story of anything — just stir up a lot of noise and confusion. It is simply appalling that an approach like that can be so effective.
aporetic1, if you are correct that mainstream Mormon discourse and discussion is going to retreat more and more into its own isolated rhetorical ghetto, it will get harder and harder for missionaries and members to do missionary work — which requires communication on some topic of common interest and understanding, some shared concern, to be effective. I don’t quite know exactly what LDS missionaries teach these days. I just have a hard time imagining that most people who answer a door knock or who strike up a conversation with an LDS missionary are actually interested in the content of the conversation. Maybe that’s a future post: What do LDS missionaries say these days? What do they teach?
Once again, a Baha’i parallel presents itself:
Click to access 235458904-Baha-i-Internet-Agency-SourceWatch.pdf
A major difference is that everybody’s heard of the Mormons, while the Baha’is are more obscure (at least to normals). This affects what is possible with PR / disinformation campaigns.
My opinion about the Church’s information campaign mostly aligns with @Anna’s. I don’t think the Church is using missionaries as ‘bot farms’ to put out misleading information online. As Anna said, they already have channels to get out their version of events, and it’s still rather old-fashioned. Lesson manuals, asking members to post their own testimonies and quotes on their own social media, press releases. I just can’t picture the Church telling anyone to deliberately lie on social media — by which I mean a white priesthood-holder saying he’s a black woman and he doesn’t have any problem with the Church’s racist past. That won’t happen. What will happen is Brad Wilcox will say something racist, and then the next week, Wilcox’s fellow counselor who is black, Ahmid Corbitt, will say what the Church needs said.
The Church’s disinformation campaign comes over the pulpit, like saying that people who leave are the ones at fault. Like saying that wanting to know more about HM means we are “demanding” information and that Church never should ask for a revelation. It’s rather straightforward, on balance, when compared to other disinformation campaigns. It does damage, and there is gaslighting, but it’s not even comparable to the scale of the lies Putin is telling, or even the ones Trump told. The Church isn’t deliberately manipulating people. The speakers (generally) believe they’re telling the truth and trying to help people come to Christ.
//How deep is your involvement with social media, and how does it affect your view of the world, your view of the Church, your beliefs, and your sense of self or identity? //
I am not on mainstream social media, but I joined Tumblr during the pandemic. It’s a chaotic mess of people posting behind pseudonyms, mostly about pop culture, meaning fandom. I’m on it every day and I love it. Every day it makes me laugh out loud. Today’s ‘misinformation’ (that has now been set to music in hastily assembled fanvideos) is Misha Collin’s misstep in apparently saying he was bisexual, and then becoming the only person who has ever had to “come out as straight” to correct the record.
How does it Tumblr affect my view of the Church? Tumblr is pretty disgusted with Christianity in general; Mormonism is weird but it’s not like mainstream Christianity fares any better. There aren’t very many Mormon posts, actually. Religion is mostly irrelevant to a lot of people.
How does it affect my view of the world? That’s been really interesting. Tumblr is five times as queer as anywhere else on the Internet, and men are a minority. I’d guess it’s about 25% cisgender men, and the rest of us are women, mostly queer women, and trans and nonbinary. Lots of racial minorities. Lots of young people from other countries. It’s a fascinating window into the world of the fringe. I’ve gotten a lot more politically and socially liberal, being on Tumblr. No one there has any political clout. Bots are just for porn, not misinformation. Anyone posting rightwing rhetoric gets ripped to shreds pretty fast.
And here’s the tie-in to W&T. John Charity Spring jumps in frequently to give his opinion that, without the Church and commandments to motivate us, we would waste our lives wearing crocs and sweats, hanging out at Dairy Queen, or playing video games in mom’s basement. If JCS knew about Tumblr, he would definitely add it to the list of “ways to waste your life.” But which is more harmful: wasting your life doing something fun, or taking on the serious business of promoting your worldview on social media and causing real world problems. Alex Jones (Infowars) is having a real impact on the world. He works hard at promoting misinformation and being a bad person. The world would be a little less awful if Alex Jones abandoned politics, became a Marvel fan and spent his time making Captain America gifs to post on Tumblr.
The world would be a better place if more people wasted their lives on frivolity that doesn’t matter. Obsess about football, get into fandom, do something that doesn’t hurt anyone. Learn to live and let live. Ambition can be a bad thing. If you want to leave your mark on the world, if you want to have influence, if you want to make a billion dollars by exploiting your workers and destroying the environment, you can work hard and do that. That’s bad. The first rule of existence should be: Do No Harm. I would much rather have my son live in my basement, wearing crocs and playing video games, then creating and marketing a product that no one really needs, or trying to become influential on social media by encouraging hate.
I don’t know if this is making any sense, this idea I got from Tumblr that enjoying yourself and doing things that don’t really matter is actually a good way to spend time. Facebook used to just be a fun way to catch up with your friends. It was the ambition that turned it toxic. Let’s monetize everything! Let’s market every single minute! Let’s turn people into influencers! If Facebook went back to being a way to chat with your friends, it would be fun again. Not ambitious. Not influential. Not rich.
We should all chill out. Go to Dairy Queen and hang out with your friends. Play a video game. At least you’re not on social media becoming a monster.
Thanks to my social media, I’ve abandoned the idea that I have to be productive and do service and make the world a better place by doing something capitalistic. That was another cultural step away from Church for me.
Janey, thanks for what you said about the members honestly believing the things they post. This is part of why I hate calling what the church does “disinformation”. For the most part, they are honestly saying what they believe to be true. 99% of church members are honest. Where it turns into disinformation is at the level of Boyd K Packer saying about church history that historians should not publish the whole story, even if it is true history because some of it is not faith promoting. Well, some of it isn’t faith promoting, but it still might be important, and when someone edits history to only the uplifting parts, and does it on purpose to paint a picture that isn’t real, then the picture isn’t true any more. Leaving out parts of the truth can paint a false picture, and if the person is doing it intentionally, then it is the same as lying. But only a few church leaders and historians do it on purpose, thinking they are doing it for some noble purpose. Most church members are just repeating what they have been taught and trusting the church leaders and historians to tell them the truth. But it is breaking that trust to only tell part of the truth in a way that is designed to lead them to believe something. Tell the full truth and then let people judge, or at least don’t excommunicate historians who publish the real history because you fear it will damage testimonies.
So, I think there is a difference between purposely lying, censoring, making up your alternate facts, and then spreading misinformation and believing the misinformation that your trusted leaders tell you. I hold the leaders responsible, not the missionaries or members who are just saying what they have been told.
Janey, I LOVE both of your comments.
They say honesty is the best policy but the Church seems to think it’s just an ok policy. That’s how they spread disinformation, with half truths.
Janey, I love your suggestion that we should do more frivolous things. Your Alex Jones example is spot on.
@Anna, I entirely agree with your followup comment as well. Disinformation requires a certain level of knowledge and a willingness to deliberately mislead people. I think some Church leaders are there, but most of the members gushing about General Conference are sincere.
Thanks for the feedback, @Chadwick and @Ziff. The pandemic slowed down my life a lot. At first, I thought I should do something productive. I wrote about 15,000 words of theological essays comparing Mormonism to mainstream Protestantism before I realized I did not want to publish a book and join the religious discourse on any real level. I wanted to goof off and laugh more.
It’s made me think about how the push to be more productive damages friendships and culture. To take an old example: remember the “every member a missionary” church phase? We were supposed to GQ (Golden Question) all our friends, prayerfully set a date to have someone ready to meet with the missionaries, and basically mine all our relationships for potential converts. I obediently tried to do that, and created some really awkward moments before deciding I wasn’t a good member missionary.
Social media has gotten corrupted. Dave B. correctly points out how much hate is on there, and points out that “free speech doesn’t seem to be working anymore.” Before concluding that, I’d take a step back from misinformation and look at what motivates all that misinformation: money and power. Facebook wants you to stay on their website more, and people engage more with outrage and soundbites, so Facebook promotes that sort of thing. That way Facebook can charge more for ads and make more money. (In contrast, Tumblr doesn’t have a workable algorithm at all; it can’t shove posts in front of you to make you engage longer, and the user base at Tumblr is a capitalist lost cause – we cannot be marketed to and we’re proud of it. There is no money and power on tumblr, and that’s why it’s still fun.)
The people promoting hate and disinformation are doing it to increase their own power. Remember back when you used to see essays in the newspaper pleading with people to get more involved in politics? Be informed! Read the news! Get involved in elections! Make a difference in the world! Well, that’s now happened and it’s a really bad result. People don’t thoughtfully consider political policies and have informed discussions. Bad political actors get a lot of support from soundbites, outrage and misinformation. It makes me nostalgic for back when only about 12% of people voted because no one else cared. Now, loads of people care and it’s resulting in the country lurching towards a rightwing theocracy of sorts. If only Grandpa would go back to sharing groan-worthy puns instead of rightwing rhetoric.
Social media isn’t really free speech. It’s speech designed to make money and create political power. It’s manipulated speech.
Sorry, I’ve got a soapbox. Let me bring this back around to Church issues.
Church has to fill a lot of time. There are 10 hours of Gen Conf to fill; a couple magazines each month; firesides and stake conferences; church services every week. Back in pioneer times, someone might hear a prophet once in their lifetime. Now we’re expected to listen for hours and hours. The prophet has to fill all that time. Church is supposed to grow, so it adopts growth tactics from corporations (marketing campaigns). It tries to hide info that would inhibit growth and emphasize info that would create growth. Church speech is directed towards capitalistic goals: growth and influence. That naturally leads to manipulating speech and eventually that can cross the line into disinformation.
Google any controversial topic related to church history and the first links that pop up are apologist and church links. I remember when I tried to add to wikipedia back in 2016 new information about Gordon Smith, former Oregon Senator who is a Mormon, about him being “church-broke” based on recent leaks and other editors of wikipedia kept deleting and omitting stuff that I wrote to the page. The church most certainly plays the game. What irks me is how the church and its leading apologists claim that they have no relationship and that the views of the apologists are their own and that the church doesn’t rely on apologist views to inform their manual narratives. Yeah right. Church leaders rely heavily on apologist arguments and long have. Apologist arguments are found in conference talks, footnotes of the standard works, Ensign articles, and manuals. I would go as far as saying that the leading apologists are the main bulwark of information for the church to defend itself. And apologists are well-known peddlers of disinformation. Their tactics and logic is not that much different from the logic employed in conspiracy theorist networks, which is, of course, shot through with all sorts of fallacies. In essence, the apologists are the leading spreaders of disinformation. Of course, the big difference is that apologist disinformation only works on already believing Mormons. It has almost no effect on non-Mormons.
On the larger question of free speech. There is no larger free speech crisis in the US. Period. Cancel culture fanatics almost entirely react to private forms of censorship, which, of course, are perfectly legal and do not actually violate free speech as protected in the US’s 1789 Constitution. There used to be free speech problems in the US. But those battles have been fought. Technology has drastically increased the freedom of individual persons to freely speak to an increasingly large audience. The problem we face nowadays is too much free speech, not too little. Disinformation is a massive problem. And lies and hate that can impact a person’s safety and livelihood, such as QAnon conspiracy theories and coronavirus disinformation, have no place in our society. Free speech laws do not protect this kind of disinformation. Many countries have made new laws to increasingly criminalize disinformation. The US should follow suit. The guy(s) behind QAnon (different from the gullible believers), meaning the people who wrote the Q-Drops or whatever they’re called, should be behind bars. Alex Jones should be behind bars as well. He is a serial slanderer, defamer, fabricator, and inciter to violence. Shame on the US legal system that is too slippery to catch such obvious criminals. Let’s close the loopholes.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
Zla’od, that’s interesting information on the Baha’i approach to online interactions. “Covenant Breakers” — now there’s a term I would expect some LDS General Authority to drop into a talk in the next year or two.
John W, that’s just the point that Pomerantsev (the author of the book I quoted in the OP) makes. The social media and Internet Age problem is way too much information, not too little because of censorship, paired with a general inability of most people to identify reliable information as opposed to all the garbage and disinformation that clogs the communications channels now. Yes, we need better tools and better training to do this, although allowing increased government censorship or expanding existing defamation law may not be what we need. However you slice it, the sudden prevalence and wide acceptance of a variety of conspiracy theories is a disturbing development. You can’t cure stupid. No amount of good government regulation or private sector tools can solve that.
Dave B, I agree in part that dangerous disinformation is difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate. But laws against heroin haven’t fully eradicated its production and distribution. Should we just get rid of all laws against dangerous drugs? I think it would be a really bad idea. China and Russia and other authoritarian regimes have managed to curb the spread of anti-government information circulating within their own countries. And much of this anti-government information there is true, warranted, and needs to be heard. But those cases do show that government censorship through stringent laws, arrests, intimidation, making examples out of offenders, and other tactics can and do work. Now I’m not in any way suggesting that the US go the way of China or Russia. If anything, I would worry that giving the government too much leeway to go after spreaders of controversial ideas would be used by Trump and his supporters to crack down on liberal media voices. But I strongly believe that an expansion of defamation laws to curb the spread of blatant lies that incite violence against politicians (i.e., the lie that Hillary Clinton tortured kids and drank their blood to get an adrenochrome high), incite people to insurrections, and harass the families of school shooting victims could help bring a little more calm and order in our current world of information chaos.
Late to the party but it’s a good party.
1 – I know for a fact for a while the Church was expressly calling “digital missionaries” – regular members that it asked to spend time every week making positive comments on blogs, social media, etc. I don’t consider that a disinformation campaign because the people I knew who were called to this were sincere. But most definitely a campaign.
2 – apologists IMO largely *are* in a disinformation campaign. Listening to some of the people who used to volunteer for FAIR / FARMS and how the group would handle questions doesn’t leave much room for doubt that they are being misleading. Maybe they have good intentions but misleading people is still misleading people.
3 – many people’s biggest problems weren’t the content of the essays (although certainly for some it was) but that the essays, while claiming to be transparent, were themselves misleading.
4 – several Church leaders have been caught lying, and on record as saying it’s OK to lie for the lord / that omissions aren’t lies.
5 – As for anti-Mormons hiring bots, who would fund that? I’m sure there are actual real anti-Mormons who are out there leaving comments and sharing information, and maybe they are making whatever technically efforts they can to have a wide reach, but there’s no $200B+ sponsoring organization to fund and organize efforts. It’s largely individual and grassroots.
I keep asking myself why are Mormons so susceptible to conspiracy theories, anti-science rhetoric, MLM, expensive supplements, magic oils, etc? It became even more of a head scratcher, when a Prophet, who is a doctor, encouraged vaccination and masks, and conservative Mormons rebelled. So much for follow the Prophet.
Why are many Mormons so gullible when it comes to disinformation? Is it the church’s “magic” beginnings. Is it the legacy of ETB? Is it CES and BYU’s religion department? Is it the Church’s ties to the Republic party?
Sunlight is the best disinfectant…
When I worked at the MTC as a teacher, I also did a “culture class” for my mission in Europe – wife of a full-time MTC person was offended that I showed a picture of a squat toilet.
A young man in my ward on his mission this week in Mexico was mugged and also had an apartment break-in. I’m sure this is more common than we are aware.
“Welcome to the Age of Disinformation”
It started several million years ago but the internet has rapidly refined its distribution.
It should be obvious but I suggest to be cautious with what you are so certain is the truth might not be (and vice versa).
“but lying for the Lord was still not telling the whole truth and trying to mislead people.”
Moses seems to have failed to inform the Canaanites that his spies were, in fact, spies.
I wonder how much information Jesus failed to mention in his three years ministry.
The law was about “bearing false witness”, there is no law against failing to witness. Just that if you testify, it must be the truth.
“If a caller asks why the church didn’t give blacks the priesthood until 1978, those missionaries are supposed to say that we don’t know why God wanted it that way, not that it was because Brigham Young was a racist.”
A person should tell the TRUTH as far as that person knows it. I have no idea why, and neither do you. B.Y. is dead, I cannot ask him and apparently he did not say. You seem to be suggesting that a missionary ought to FABRICATE a politically correct answer du jour when the missionary DOES NOT KNOW why Brigham Young did or did not do the many things he did and didn’t.
To be sure, over the past couple of years, official speakers for the church are under increased command to preach the gospel as it is written, not as one speculates or wishes it to be. HERE you can do whatever you like and speculate about whatever you want. It isn’t authoritative.